‘Indignation’ Is Insightful, Interesting, and Intense

by Warren Cantrell on August 10, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Solid Rock Fist Up]

In the wrong hands, Indignation might have become a standard exercise in genre conventions, mixing period drama with a dash of Jewish neuroticism and a pinch of manic pixie dream girl. The film is the feature directorial debut of James Schamus, a frequent Ang Lee collaborator and former CEO of Focus Features, and is none of these things, however.

Based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, Indignation tells the story of a very smart young man who has the dubious good fortune of being socially progressive, in love, and possessed of all the self-confidence in the world. For many people, this trifecta would prove advantageous and/or beneficial, but for a headstrong 18-year-old Jewish lad-turned Atheist in 1951 Ohio, it may as well be a death sentence.

Indeed, death is a recurring theme of the picture, for its specter hangs over the head of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who narrates his own story in Indignation. Marcus begins the film at Temple, during the funeral service for a childhood friend who died in Korea. The audience learns during the shiva that Marcus will soon be travelling from his home in New Jersey to Ohio, where he’ll be attending college, and thus will be exempt from military service. This is something that weighs heavily on Marcus’ mother and father (played brilliantly by Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, respectively), and plants a powerful seed in their son to get away from their suffocating protection. Yet Marcus isn’t looking to live a bohemian life or otherwise act out in defiance of this tightly clenched love: he just wants to go to school, study, and succeed on his own terms.

Polite, unassuming, and quiet, Marcus is hardly a pushover, however, and bristles at any suggested influence or prodding. He quarrels with his professors, parents, roommates, and even the university’s Dean, who all seem to be a step behind the young man as it concerns his logical, secular reasoning. Yet Indignation does a very interesting thing in the midst of all of this: it refuses to take Marcus’ side. When Marcus’ roommate gives him grief about a date, he’s being a jerk about things, but he isn’t necessarily wrong. Similarly, the Dean (played to perfection by Tracy Letts) who lectures Marcus about the 18 year old’s miniscule life experience and cockiness is undoubtedly a pretentious dick, but isn’t incorrect in his assessment.

In 2016, Marcus would be in good company with his atheist beliefs and progressive attitudes about personal liberty, yet in 1951, that stuff doesn’t fly. Marcus is further challenged by a young woman he meets in class: another exile to Ohio who doesn’t wish to conform to social norms, yet also isn’t looking to start a revolution. Marcus and Olivia (Sarah Gadon) go on a date, and the former finds himself floored by the bold confidence this woman exhibits. As much as he thinks he has things figured out, as sure as he is that he knows what he is doing, Marcus can’t seem to reconcile this one hiccup. Were it to know an origin from anywhere else but his heart, this figurative gasp might be managed or ignored, yet this is altogether new. As this stress is compounded by Marcus’ troubles at home, at school, and as it concerns his tenuous grasp on his understanding of the world, cracks in his character begin to form.

As the mental begins to manifest itself into the physical, Marcus’s struggles yank him back and forth between competing world-views and his own sense of self. Haunted by the ever-present stench of his own mortality, Marcus begins to question his sense of right and wrong. Throughout it all, Lerman does fantastic work, and anchors his performance in a believable portrayal that harkens back to a time when many people felt they had things all figured out. It’s easy to feel like everything is simple at 18, when a wealth of new knowledge casts a spell on a mind not yet tainted by the hard realities of sustained adulthood. Indeed, the work Lerman does in the picture to portray a scared young man wrapped in a thick coat of intellectual armor makes the picture worth viewing all by itself.

Really, though, Indignation succeeds because of the patient, thoughtful work of its director, Shamus. Too often, one hears stories of studio heads meddling in productions to add more action, drama, or pizzazz, so it would stand to reason that when a studio CEO did make a movie, it would feel a little over-polished and formulaic. Nothing could be further from the truth here, however, for Indignation takes its time setting up its characters, and the world Marcus, Olivia, et al inhabit. Meticulous attention is paid to the costumes and set design, as well, and speaks to a production that was crafted with even the smallest details in mind. Although the story feels a bit rushed early on (it would have been nice to see Marcus ask Olivia out), there aren’t any shortcuts to get Marcus where he ends up by the end of the picture. It’s a devastating reveal, yet one purchased with patience, subtlety, and a commitment to the unique character development throughout the picture.

Opening tomorrow in Kansas City, Indignation is a smart, well-crafted story about young adulthood and what it means to be smart and stupid all at the same time. Content to take its time and invest in its characters, Shamus’ film doesn’t pull any punches, yet is polite about it: like a boxer who asks an opponent if they are okay after a knockout.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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